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The Latin Tongue: Restaurants in the Twin Cities

A nice spread from El Bravo

It is obvious to anyone paying attention that Americans have an obsession with Mexican food. Simply take a look at our fast food chains, food courts, strip malls and everywhere in between. You cannot say the same about any other ethnic cuisine. Sure, Italian is right up there, but besides pizza (which is mostly Americanized anyway), Italian cuisine has not quite taken over like the rampant spread of tacos, burritos and other notions borrowed from Latin culture. What is less obvious to me is, why?

 

In trying to answer this question, I decided I had to start at the roots of Mexican cuisine. I knew that a trip to Mexico was not in the cards right now and I was pretty sure that I would not find my answers if I only considered Taco Bell and the other major players in the "Mexican" food world. I wanted to go deeper and immerse myself in the cultures and foods of the Latin world. I wanted to make myself uncomfortable by having to speak my mangled, dodgy Spanglish and try things with tongue and tripe. I wanted to find those folks who were still very connected with our southern neighbors.

 

As opposed to the early settlers, the Swedes, Norwegians, etc. many of the Mexican immigrants who came to this country often came temporarily, for seasonal work. They would return to Mexico or send money back hoping to encourage family members to join them and therefore keep the cultural ties with their homeland strong. As their work turned into prosperity, they would put down roots, more family would come and the cultural infusion would be strengthened. As fellow writer Gabriela Lambert pointed out to me, this is a culture that puts a priority on family and community meals, so it follows that they would seek to create businesses based around those values and it also explains why sometimes when dining out it feels as if you are in someone's personal kitchen. Americans can be made to feel very shy about entering something this casual and intimate.

 

Knowing this, it is no wonder that a search for Mexican restaurants usually only turns up fast food chains, Chipotles and those huge chain restaurants that appear in the parking lots of strip malls and other shopping areas. It seemed almost impossible to find those places that you have driven by hundreds of times but not had the wherewithal to stop in and eat. Perhaps we are just too shy.

 

I considered what I knew about Mexican food to try and glean any more information in this quest for answers. Here is what I came up with:

  • I know that Mexican food is almost always well seasoned, especially the meat.
  • Almost every dish has some sort of vegetable/bean presence (think chilis, tomatoes, radish, onion, garlic, lettuce, cilantro, and sometimes potatoes).
  • It is easy to avoid highly processed and fried foods.
  • The restaurants are usually owned/operated by proud, hard working folks.
  • The food goes amazingly well with beer.

 

Ok, none of that helped me to understand why I don't stop and smell the salsa. So, it is time that I did. I invited my intrepid food partner, Charles into the mix. Charles is afraid of no food (except that which is ill-prepared), so I knew that he would be perfect to take along on this adventure. 

 

We sat down and formed some ground rules, to be fair and consistent. 

1. What would we order? This can be overwhelming when you love food and we wanted to be consistent, but also fair. We decided that in fairness to each establishment, we would ask our server to tell us their favorite (or if that failed, the most popular) item on the menu. This would invite a bit of the unpredictable, allow the workers/owners to share their pride and also expose us to new foods. We then decided to always try a taco and/or tamale (a couple of standards), if they were on the menu. Our budget would be $25 total, no drinks.

 

2. We refuse to comment much on the atmosphere or service. To me, there are too many confounding variables at play here and it is often unfair to judge what you simply don't know much about. Many of the places we plan to go are working on a shoestring budget and simply cannot afford to deck out their bathrooms with marble and glass. Also, many workers at these restaurants are performing more than one task. They may serve your table, but probably are also doing at least a couple other jobs. Plus, we simply are not in a hurry. We like to eat slow and easy. Don't get me wrong, we love hot food, delivered attractively by friendly servers and will point out when this happens. And of course, if there are safety issues or we have an absolutely terrible experience, we will either state that or not run the review.

 

3. We refuse to us the word authentic. I don't even know what that means. To some it means that Spanish is spoken, to others that their tacos are served with just meat, cilantro and onions. I don't care to get into it. What is authentic to one person's family and homeland, may not be to another. We simply want to know if the food is tasty and well made.

 

4. We want to focus on local, one-of-a-kind places in the twin cities metro area.

 

There you have it, look forward to our eating adventures soon and help us on our way. Have a favorite place that we should put a spotlight on or a restaurant that you've always wondered about? Let us know in the comment section below or send us an email

As we publish our reviews, we will provide the links here:

Mi Sinaloa- mpls

El Bravo- st. paul

El Guayaquil- mpls

El Taco Riendo- NE mpls

Taqueria El Ranchito- Richfield

El 7 Mares- St. Paul

La Guadalupana market- St. Paul

Taqueria la Hacienda- mpls

La Mixteca- Bloomington

Taco Taxi- mpls

Catalina's- Columbia Heights

Las Teresitas- mpls

El Taquito- West St. Paul

Cocina Latina- mpls

Manana Restaurant and Pupuseria- St. Paul

Dominguez Family Restaurant- Mpls

Homi- St. Paul

Taqueria Morales/La Poblanita- Mpls

El Loro- Crystal

Taqueria Hidalgo- Burnsville

La Hacienda- St. Paul

Marissa's Deli- Mpls

Andale Taqueria- Richfield

Pupuseria La Palmera- Mpls

Bymore Taqueria- Eastside St Paul

Somos Peru- Mpls

Aurelia's- Eden Prairie

Nacho's Supermercado- Hopkins

Gorditas El Gordo- Mpls

Maya Cuisine- NE Mpls

 


Lawrence Black is a writer and editor at 
Simple, Good and Tasty.  He can be reached at lawrence@simplegoodandtasty.com.

Comments

El Tejaban Mexican Grill, Richfield (of all places). Sunday nights the place is packed with families there for the mocajetes (stews cooked in a stone bowl) special and live music. Erratic service, shady credit card reader (pay cash), but the place feels and tastes like Mexico.

Ala Salsa is one of my favorites, particularly anything with mole sauce. Even their salsas that come with the mandatory chip basket are nicely spiced and delicious.

I also had a fun (and much more scaled down) time at Pineda on Lake Street. I ordered a chimichanga that was not only freshly fried by the accomodating lady behind the counter, but she finished the dish up by pulling out a mini blowtorch to toast the cheese on the top!

Thanks for the ideas...and keep them coming. This is the only way to find out what is out there. We really need help in the suburbs, N. Mpls and St. Paul, so let us know where to go!

Los Ocampo. The one on Arcade St on the east side of St Paul has the best Mexican rice. I define "best" as the closest to my mother's, for what it's worth! Los Ocampo also does al pastor really well. El Amanacer on the west side of St Paul is pretty good.

Hoping that it's still there, our favorite Mexican place was 'Chaska My Love' in - where else? - Chaska. And yes, that's what it's called. 8-)

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Chaska-My-Love/160149504002374?sk=info

I loved their menudo and posole (both 'red' and 'white'), while my husband always ordered the lengua tacos. Don't miss their horchata - delicious and refreshing! There was so much more to try, but alas, Asia beckoned. You can bet that Chaska My Love will be one of our first stops when we return to Minnesota for a visit! 8-)

Definitely Monterey in Lexington/Lino Lakes! And also Rey Azteca in Chanhassen, although I do favor Monterey.

I have heard so many people say Pineda Tacos is truly Mexican. I went to the location in Plymouth, and enjoyed it thoroughly - but I don't have enough experience with Mexican food to say if it was as good as it gets or not. Here's the rub - it's a fast food joint. I generally find the street foods/fast foods to be the best ethnic ones, though. It's also in a strip mall...but I've been discovering a lot of great places are hidden in suburban strip malls. Everyone raves about it, and now I'd kill for a burrito just thinking about it. The staff let us sit and chat for three hours, until we were the only ones left and they had cleaned every other table, the floor, and taken out the trash. I have to respect a place that doesn't hurry you along.

The only negative thing I have to say is that they didn't have horchata, although it was on the menu.

Taqueria El Ranchito in Richfield and make sure to get the refried beans with your tacos.

Best Mexican food I've had here.

Hey Lawrence ... regarding your comment: St. Paul has "Boca Chica", North Minneapolis has "Cilantro y Habanero". There's probably a dozen good, authentic restaurants around Boca Chica, but most stay in business less than a year unfortunately. The one we had cater our wedding is already gone. I hope you inspire lots of business to these hard working families.

Check out El Burrito Mercado in St. Paul. My boyfriend is Mexican-American and it's the go-to place for him and his family. The food is delicious. They have a market, deli (to take away or dine in) and restaurant.

Our favorite Mexican place is Dominguez Family Restaurant at 34th and 50th in South Minneapolis - family-owned, quaint, great service, fast, and excellent food. They have the Mpls-St. Paul Magazine "Best of" award painted on the wall. I recommend the fish tacos or costa taquitos (with steak). This restaurant always gets rave reviews every time we bring someone!

We had supper last night at Homi on University at Victoria in St. Paul, and I highly recommend it. One of the few Mexican places that serves Oaxacan specialties. I had the consome de borrego (lamb stew), and the delicious intensity is not to be missed. My wife had the Tostadas del pastor and after one bite proclaimed that she had found her new favorite dish.
I had been there in the fall to pick up some take out beans, and left also with a dozen tamales--really good--and champurrado. Another Oaxacan specialty that I was thrilled to find, and it was superb.

University is torn up with light rail construction, so get to Homi via Aurora from Lexington.

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